Worship: Christian, Art and Whole

Christianity Today recently posted an article critiquing contemporary approaches to corporate worship entitled, “Contemporary Music: The Cultural Medium and the Christian Message.” The basic point of the article is that contemporary approaches to worship have sought so much to be open, welcoming, attractive and inoffensive to the uninitiated that the bite of the gospel has been exchanged for the flashiness of our entertainment culture. The author, Dr. D. H. Williams at Baylor University, mixes good critique with poor.

Williams helpfully urges congregations to keep worship services Christian. That might sound a little odd, but is perhaps needed in the wake of the seeker-sensitive movement and the push to connect with the culture of those we are seeking to welcome into the family of God through Christ. Christian worship is what we do as a Christian family to remind ourselves and each other who God is and who we are. Like a chiropractic adjustment it realigns us to the proper posture our lives ought to take before God. In order to do this, times of corporate worship have to be distinctly Christian, filled with the vocabulary and symbols that unequivocally communicate the gospel that is nothing without Christ. In this sense it is evangelistic; it proclaims the gospel without dilution.

I think Williams falls short on a couple of accounts though. First, he appears to lump all contemporary worship as unable to properly serve this sort of function of Christian worship. He interestingly points to the motivation of “artistry” in his unfavorable description of contemporary worship and there I think is precisely were we can favorably describe contemporary worship. Attempting to artfully order and guide worship using the aesthetic palate made available by the intersection of Christian distinctives and the surrounding culture’s sense of the beautiful is something Christians have been doing from the start. The sense of art of the 1800’s or 300’s is no more sacred than the sense of art of the 2100’s. Contemporary worship artists (perhaps a more fitting title than “Worship Directors/Pastors”) are attempting to work with the palate unavoidably shaped by our culture and fill it with the rich and vibrant message of our ancient gospel. Have there been failures in that effort? Certainly. Have unchristian aspects, like consumerism, been alloyed with Christian worship? Of course. But that doesn’t mean we retreat to old forms and blame contemporary Christian art (visual, musical, or liturgical) as the culprit. We ought to encourage and press our artists to break new ground and experiment to engage worship artfully and Christianly in order to  form us into the image of the Christ.

The second point I think Williams falls short on is his critique of the aim of contemporary worship to connect emotionally. It is important to remind each other of who God is and who we are through explicit statements for the head to process, but cognition is only one component of the Christian life. The process of formation must engage both the head and the heart.  Worship should not leave the head behind, as some contemporary worship probably does, but neither can it leave the heart behind. I would love to see greater intellectual richness in contemporary worship, this is an area needing further work, but I don’t want to do it at the cost of ignoring emotional connection. Both the mind and the heart can be manipulated for ill and both the mind and the heart must be formed for the Christian good.

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One Final Look (Chp 8 and Final Review of Love Wins)

The final chapter of Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is a short wrap-up chapter so I will not give the extensive summary and commentary I have for the other chapters (check out my reviews of chapters 1-2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7).

The End

Chapter 8 makes two important points that are worth re-stating. First, Bell acknowledges the “strong, shocking images [in some of Jesus’ parables] of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities” (96). These stories, according to Bell, are intended to wake us up to the reality that what we do now matters. We might get other opportunities to follow Jesus in the future, but we must take the opportunities we have in the present seriously because “there are realities to our choices” (96). Second, and tied in with that, “Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today” (97). Now matters because now is the end of the old era.

I think both of these points are helpful and conclude the book with a rather non-controversial tone. Bell’s final call is for us to recognize the love of God which Jesus calls us to trust and to take seriously the task of trusting that love.

The Trailer

When I first saw this trailer I thought it was spectacular. Like it did for much of the Evangelical world, it raised some suspicion for me, but it also got me excited to see how Bell was going to wrestle with these issues. Even now watching the trailer again gave me an emotional sense of hope for resolution as the trailer progressed into its last minute. Resolution, however, was not part of my experience in reading the book. Perhaps that was the goal of Love Wins, to merely get the church talking about questions that not only lurk in our own minds but also cause many outside the church to criticize, marginalize or ignore the Christian faith.

Bell did offer some ways forward in thinking the questions through, but many of those ways seemed inadequate and chained by pitfalls of their own. Though Bell may not have resolved the tension of hell for Christianity, he does introduce (or remind) his readers to some important concepts. These positive contributions include hope in the coming of heaven to earth and bodily resurrection, linking our ethics to this eschatological (theology of the end) hope, recognizing different views on hell as legitimate for Christians to hold, and seeing the gospel in its cosmic proportion which reaches beyond humanity.

Bell’s expertise in communication does outweigh his prowess in theological reflection and biblical interpretation, but I do not want to be too harsh in regards to his shortcomings in this work. We should look to Bell as an adept question raiser who gets the ball rolling and offers some stimulating suggestions. That he has done in Love Wins.

Heresy?

No.

I did not see anything I would call heresy. We need to be very careful before seriously applying this label. Theological difference does not mean heresy. We all, myself included, need to remember to refrain from vitriolically denouncing Bell or other professed Christians before carefully and charitably parsing what they say. With that said, Bell chooses to say things in provocative ways that almost beg to be read as further away from an Evangelical center than they actually are. Furthermore, the trailer for the book set many readers up to read him with a hermeneutic of suspicion rather than one of charity. For those reasons, I think Bell has to take a little credit himself for the polarized response to the book.

Conclusion

Give Love Wins a shot. It will probably make you think through things a little differently. Read it carefully though and respond to some of the bombshell statements by reading the section or chapter again. Don’t look for resolution and final theological statements on the issues of heaven and hell but rather for good questions and different angles from which to think. As always, keep a critical eye open and don’t be afraid to see some good thoughts and some poor ones next to each other between the same two covers.

Is This Really Better? (Chp 7 of Love Wins)

Time to review and comment on Chapter 7, “The Good News is Better Than That” of Love Wins by Rob Bell. My review of this chapter highlights weakness quite a bit more than strengths. I would like to think it is because this was a weaker chapter, but perhaps I am just in a more critical mood today. Anyways, I hope you will forgive me if I have stepped over any good contributions Bell makes in this chapter.

If you are interested, check out my reviews of chapters 1-2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. As usually, skip to the end of this post for a brief summary.

Everyone is at the Party

The opening section of this chapter explores the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The first interesting move he makes is to say that the issue for the younger prodigal son and the older son is whose version of the story to believe, God’s or theirs?

The younger son believes that he “is no longer worthy” to be his father’s son. The father, however, upon regaining his son adorns him with robe, rings and sandals — signs that he is indeed his son. The son must decide which version of the story to believe.

The older son has his own choice between stories. In his own he has been the son who loyally served his father like a slave without out ever getting even a goat let alone a fattened calf to feast with his friends. It is a story of enslavement, the father’s cheapness and unfair treatment. The father, however, says that his eldest son has always been with him (according to Bell this means not as a slave) and has always had shared possession of everything the father owns. In the father’s story fairness is not the goal, but rather graciousness and generosity.

Bell then uses this parable to re-describe his vision of heaven and hell. Everyone is at the same party, but in order to experience the party as heaven we need to believe the Father’s story otherwise we experience hell.

my thoughts: I think Bell is right that we need to hear and believe the story the Father tells us. That is a helpful way to view Christian formation. However, I don’t know if I am keen on reading the parable of the prodigal son as a parable of heaven and hell.

The context of the parable is Jesus speaking with the tax collectors and sinners listening and of course the Pharisees grumbling saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In the sense that this parable tears down conceptions of who belongs to God  based on lifelong (and multi-generational) loyalty and so tears down such conceptions of who belongs in the Kingdom of God, yes it can speak to us about heaven and hell. However, I am not convinced Jesus is using the parable to describe heaven and hell as a party at which everyone is present though they experience it differently. One could easily look to the parables that talk about gnashing teeth outside the kingdom (e.g., Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 13:22-30) as depictions of heaven and hell which image it as being in vs. out (this could also be raised against Bell’s gospel of enjoyment vs. entrance in the next section).

Blaming (Bad) Theology

In the second part of Chapter 7 Bell points the finger at a certain conception of God for failures in evangelism and failures of faith. According to Bell, when we see God essentially pulling a Jeckyll and Hyde, loving to the point of self-sacrifice for the world in one moment but then cruelly tormenting people in the next, we lose motivation to proclaim this God to the world. It turns into a theology in which the nice side of God, Jesus, saves us from the cruel side of God. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter how nice our buildings look, how upbeat the music is or how delicious the coffee tastes, people are not attracted to a God when this two-faced theology is found out. This God “can’t be loved” (85).

In this discussion he makes an interesting distinction which, for Bell, is critical, the distinction between entrance and enjoyment. Bell says we have typically held and preached a gospel of entrance concerned with who enters the party and who doesn’t. Bell calls this the gospel of goats because like the older brother it demonstrates a lack of imagination in how generous God is. Bell blames bad art, lack of innovation,  self-righteousness and even pastoral burnout on the entrance gospel. Bell argues that instead of entrance we should think in terms of enjoyment.  The good news is not that we can get into the party, but that we can enjoy the party. Jesus has already forgiven us even before we believe the right things or know what we are doing (Luke 23). When we embrace that forgiveness, the story of the Father, we are free to enjoy heaven.

my thoughts: I think Bell is right that the Jeckyll and Hyde view of God does appear problematic (as he narrates it at least), but I don’t think he has escaped the problem. We could turn the table and describe the God who let’s everyone into the party only to allow some to suffer hell in the very face of all those experiencing heaven as a God who cruelly allows people he died for to experience torment. We need to find a different way forward than the one Bell proposes. One possible avenue may be to reassess placing ourselves as the judge of God (remember, that did not work out so great for us when we judged God as a criminal in Jesus) and refrain from using our vision of justice as the measure by which we decide what God must do or not do. That might not be a path completely free from problems itself though…

Furthermore,  I think his analysis that this view of God is crippling our evangelism is just simply not true according to my own observations. Even those who subscribe to double predestination (a view in which God actively elects some for salvation and also actively elects some for hell — a theology most susceptible to this charge of a Jeckyll and Hyde God) are often exuberantly evangelistic. Additionally, churches with nice buildings, good music and good coffee are successfully attracting people (for better or for worse). That discussion is really irrelevant though because I am not ready to measure the success of my theology by its acceptance in the wider culture. Jesus was rejected so his followers and his message probably will be too.

I know I am being more critical than usual, but I was not impressed with this section so I need to launch one more critique. I don’t think his distinction between entrance and joyous participation is really all that helpful. First of all, I don’t think we can blame all the churches problems on an entrance view of the gospel. Churches from all sorts of theological traditions experience these problems and even beyond that I cannot see a coherent connection between the supposed disease and these symptoms. Explorations of ecclesiology (theology of church) might be more fruitful in finding a theological root to these weeds. Bell seems to be overstating the value of this distinction when it might not really make a big difference let alone be the cause of the problems he attributes to it.

Summary

In Chapter 7 Bell restates his vision of heaven and hell as matter of how one experiences this life and the next. Working from the story of the prodigal son he highlights the need to believe God’s version of the story which narrates our identity in our relationship to God. He goes on to use the parable of the prodigal son as a vision of heaven and hell as a party that everyone is at even though we may experience it in different ways depending on whether we believe God’s story or not. This sets Bell up to see the gospel as a gospel of enjoyment rather than a gospel of entrance. The former leads to a view of a fully loving God which we want to share with the rest of the world and the later leads to a dangerous bi-polar view of God which saps our excitement for God and the gospel.

Again, Bell is not a heretic, but he has attributed a lot of problems to the “entrance gospel” which I think are largely undeserved and not necessarily avoided with an “enjoyment gospel.” His use of the prodigal son is helpful in some ways, but it may not be entirely faithful to Jesus’ use of the parable. I would also like to hear Bell wrestle with the parables which appear to envision the kingdom of God as something of which you are either in or out.

You Don’t Own Jesus (Chp 6 of Love Wins)

Rob Bell’s main point in Chapter 6 of Love Wins is that “Jesus is bigger than any one religion” (76). It is an assertion of common sense (if there is such a thing in theology) and a provocative statement all at the same time in the context of this book. If you are new here, check out my reviews of chapters 1-2, 3, 4 and 5. If you would just like a brief summary of the chapter, skip to the end of this post.

Jesus is in Unexpected Places

The first point Rob Bell makes in this chapter is that Jesus can be found in unexpected places. He kicks the chapter off with a story about a pothead who began to follow Jesus after a spiritual experience during a high in which he felt God’s presence. He then goes on to talk about the rock in Exodus 17 which produced water in the middle of the desert after Moses struck it with his staff and offers Paul’s interpretation of this rock, that it was Christ (1 Corinthians 10).

According to Paul,

Jesus was there.

Without anybody using his name.

Without anybody saying that it was him.

Without anybody acknowledging just what – or, more precisely, who – it was.

This then raises the questions for Bell, when, where, with who and how else has Jesus been present?

my thoughts: The story from Exodus and Paul’s interpretation of it is very interesting for understanding who Jesus is as God. With this framing of the question I am comfortable recognizing that Jesus is often at work in places where we cannot see him or would not expect him.

Jesus as the Divine Life-giving Energy

Jesus is the divine word of God (John 1) who played an important role in the creation of everything (Genesis 1, Hebrews 1, Colossians 1). According to the early Christians, this hand Jesus has in creation is not just limited to the very first moment of creation, but is also the continuing energy which pervades the universe and sustains life (Ephesians 4:10 and 1 Corinthians 8:6).

my thoughts: If I have my history of Christian thought correct, I believe the concept Bell is drawing on here is something the early church fathers adapted from Greco-Roman thought in their effort to understand who Jesus is theologically (Bell hints at this). In my mind Bell is making a legitimate theological move in listening to how Christians in the first several centuries of Christianity attempted to understand Jesus in their context.

Exclusivity on the Other Side of Inclusivity

Building from the previous section, Bell asserts that Jesus cannot be contained by one label. “Jesus is bigger than any one religion” (76).

As obvious as it is then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion.

He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called “Christianity.”

He references John 12,  “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” and John 6, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world,” to show Jesus’ plan to draw everyone, regardless of religious label, to himself.

Bell argues that he is not asserting a generic inclusivity, but rather an “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity.” He is firm that Jesus is the only way to the Father as John 14 shows (here is the exclusivity) but is also unequivocal that the “the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum” (here is the inclusivity).

As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.

Not true.

Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.

What Jesus does is declare that he,

and he alone,

is saving everybody.

In the church, according to Bell, we orient ourselves around this mystery of the wideness of Jesus and the narrowness of Jesus. The truths we practice in baptism and communion are true for us because they are true for everybody.

my thoughts: I am guessing that if you are going to call Rob Bell a universalist, now is the time. I would not though, again, at least not yet.  Bell is still leaving room for the notion of hell he expressed earlier and, despite his scintillating use of pluralistic rhetoric, he does not seem to be committed to everyone having a heavenly experience in the next life. Bell says we can expect Jesus to include “all sorts of people” not necessarily ‘every person who ever lived.’ I would like to see Bell draw in his depiction of hell with this section more though. I am wondering if his view that Jesus is saving everyone means that everyone is saved but can still have a hellish experience if they reject that salvation or if Jesus saving everybody is about the eternal opportunity he suggests people will have to accept Jesus and then be saved.

Even if everyone does have a heavenly experience in the next life, as Bell does leave room for, this would not push Christ out of the center. Bell’s theological frame still possesses a high Christology (very high actually) and keeps the cross in the center of salvation (though he probably could have explained that a little better). Jesus is at the center of salvation for Bell, even if belief in the name “Jesus” in this lifetime is not. So that goes back to discussions of earlier chapters in which such belief was devalued by Bell.

One of the moves Bell does in this section is to minimize the value Christianity has for salvation. It is true that Jesus is bigger than the church and that Jesus can and does work in ways that Christians can not always anticipate. However, there is an intimate link between the church and Jesus which drops out in Bell’s theology here; according to Paul, the church is the body of Christ. If Jesus is the one who saves, might not the church which is his body have an important part in that? Furthermore, if we are going to draw theology from early church fathers (which Bell seems to have interest in doing), then we certainly cannot ignore the value of the church for the process of salvation.

Humble Pie

Bell closes the chapter with three points regarding how this speaks into the question of heaven and hell. 1) We are not surprised when people find Jesus outside of the church or use language to talk about the mystery of Jesus without using the name “Jesus.” 2) None of us fully understands the saving work of Jesus, including its breadth which, in the gospels, was always wider than the disciples thought. 3) “[I]t is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s eternal destinies” (80).

my thoughts: None of this greatly disturbs me and  I think most of it is good and helpful stuff. The issue on which I am going to have to think more (and would love to hear your thoughts) is the importance of the name “Jesus.” Obviously there are different names for “Jesus” in different languages. That seems to be a fruitless path to take. What is really important is the referrant of the particular person who was born in Nazareth, died on a Roman cross, and resurrected from the dead. It is that person we follow and believe and so are resurrected with. If we follow Bell in this chapter do we lose a) the value of the particularity of Jesus and b) the necessity for humanity of the revelation of God in that particularity?

Summary

In Chapter 6 Bell argues that Jesus is huge, everywhere, and not bound to our limited conceptions. Because of this, Jesus is able to save people we would not expect him to, maybe even everyone! The effect this has on the way we talk about hell is that we need to be humble and not claim to have all the answers.

Again, I don’t think Bell is being heretical, but I do think his theology, as he presents it in this chapter, runs the risk of devaluing the roles of both the church the particularity of Jesus in the process of salvation.

A Cosmic Gospel (Chp 5 of Love Wins)

Welcome to my review of Chapter 5, “Dying to Live,” of Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Check out my summary and commentary for chapters 1-2 here, Chapter 3 here and Chapter 4 here. As usual, if you are looking for a brief summary skip to the last section of this post.

Crucified Metaphors

In the first section of Chapter 5 Bell points out the diverse ways the New Testament authors (as people of a different time and culture) described what happened on the cross.

Is the cross about the end of the sacrificial system

or a broken relationship that’s been reconciled

or a guilty defendant who’s been set free

or a battle that’s been won

or the redeeming of something that was lost?

With this Bell is getting at the point that we cannot rely on only one metaphor the New Testament offers in its historical-cultural context as THE metaphor to understand the cross in all times and cultures. To this end he notes the power the sacrificial model would have had to ancient folks to whom regular sacrifice was a way to maintain happy relations with their gods. But does that metaphor still have the same power for those of us who have never relied on religious animal sacrifice for our well-being? For Bell the significance is not in the metaphor itself but the truth to which it points. We need to read our our world just as the New Testament authors did theirs and articulate the meaning of the cross in metaphors that have meaning to our culture. The point is not the particular metaphor, but rather Jesus, “The divine in Flesh and Blood” (65).

my thoughts: Right on, as long as we still take those metaphors in their historical-cultural location as the gold standard by which we develop and evaluate new metaphors to understand Jesus and the cross.  My guess is that Bell would be on-board with that. There is some difficulty in saying Jesus is “the point” as if that makes everything clear, intelligible and communicable. Don’t we still need metaphors to understand what it means to say that Jesus is the point and how he is the point? We just need to be aware we are using metaphors to gauge other metaphors and not some pure and accessible “point” we can point to without contextual metaphor. In short though, I think Bell makes a helpful observation here.

Cosmic Resurrection

In the second section of this chapter Bell turns towards resurrection. He opens it by talking about the pervasiveness of death leading back to life in everyone’s experience of the world (e.g., we sustain life by eating dead plants and animals). Bell’s point here is that “death and rebirth are as old as the world” (67). He then goes into the creation motifs in John’s gospel and sees the resurrection of Jesus as day 8 in the creation narrative and so the first day of a new creation of the cosmos. The point  is that Jesus did something bigger than just reconciling individual people to God (thought that is a part of it). In his resurrection Jesus started a new creation of the universe in which death is defeated. It is the ultimate death and rebirth story that is the end of all other death and rebirth.

An important component of Bell’s portrait of the gospel is that we are not at the center of the meaning of the resurrection. He contrasts this with what he calls the smallness of church when it only focuses on the reconciliation of  the individual to God as the meaning of the resurrection. Despite this dethroning of humanity from the center of the gospel, Bell still understands the cross and resurrection to have personal as well as cosmic meaning. Our salvation is in our place within this “epic” and cosmic movement. The impact on our life is that we let go of the old ways (die) and embrace the new (live anew).

my thoughts: I like it, with one little critique. I think Bell is right to see the motif of creation in John’s gospel and hits the nail on the head by pointing out the cosmic magnitude of the cross and resurrection as new creation. One thing I might push him on is to understand how the full humanity of Jesus plays into this. If humanity does not have a central role in the cosmic new creation Jesus may as well have been a camel or a tree, maybe even a sun or a galaxy. I imagine incarnation as anything within the cosmos would have done the trick. Jesus was human though and for good reason. Humans have a central role in the creation and fall of the cosmos (Genesis 1-3) and we are the keystone within creation for its liberation from the corruption we wrought (Romans 8:19-23). In his resurrection as a human Jesus began the re-creation of humanity which then effects the re-creation of the cosmos. The gospel is absolutely cosmic, but its epicenter is the redemption of humanity. Again, Bell might not disagree with me if he heard me say it this way, but I think this point gets passed over in his treatment of the resurrection.

Summary

We should not select one of the many New Testament metaphors for what happened on the cross as the only way to understand Jesus’ death. Rather we need to understand that Jesus is the point of the metaphors (whatever that means) and that is what we need to be concerned about maintaining. When it comes to understanding the crucifixion and resurrection we need to see it as an epic event of cosmic proportions. In this way the gospel is not centered on humans but still has personal significance for our lives as we let go of the old ways and embrace the new ways. We cannot reduce the gospel from this cosmic story to the smaller story of the individuals reconciliation to God (though that is still a part of the cosmic story).

Bell makes good and needed contributions to the popular theological imagination here; however, his presentation does overlook the significance of the humanity of Jesus and so the central role the re-creation of humanity has in the re-creation of the cosmos. It also seems like Bell (and often I too!) might fall prey to his own critique by offering cosmic re-creation as the only metaphor through which we can properly understand the cross and resurrection. New creation is a powerful metaphor, but maybe not the only one to the exclusion of individualized metaphors of reconciliation and justification which have spoken powerfully to people for the past several hundreds years.

You Get What You Want (Chp 4 of Love Wins)

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might just find you get what you need.”

That might be the spirituality of the Rolling Stones, but Rob Bell says ‘not so much’ (at least when it comes to heaven and hell) in Chapter Four of Love Wins. You can find my reviews of chapters 1 and 2 here and Chapter 3 here.

In Chapter 4, “Does God Get What God Wants?”, Bell argues in the end that if we want hell, that is what we get, and if we want heaven, that is what we get. He does a bit of maneuvering before he gets there though. If you are looking for a brief summary, skip to the last paragraph.

An Omnipotent God with a Plan

Rob Bell’s first move in this chapter is to point out an apparent contradiction between two components of traditional evangelical theology: God being powerful and so presumably able to accomplish God’s will to save all people (citing 1 Timothy 2, Isaiah 52, Zepheniah 3, Philippians 2, Psalm 22 as well as various texts on the  intimate connection between God and all people) and the eternal punishment of those who do not believe in Jesus. In other words, how does a powerful God who wants to save everyone lose many to hell?

my thought: good question

Diversity in Christian Thought

Bell’s next move is to point out the diverse ways orthodox Christians have historically dealt with this dilemma.

a) We get one lifetime to make the right choice and if we choose wrong we go to hell forever (Bell does parse out a more nuanced description of this but basically sees it as: God does not get what God wants)

b) We only have this lifetime to determine our eternal state, but this lifetime is about either cultivating the divine image in us (which makes us human) or extinguishing the divine image in us. In the latter case the hell-bound extinguish the divine image in themselves and so become something non-human or “posthuman.” Presumably then they would suffer eternally but since they would not be truly human it would not be morally troubling.

c) Those who are hell-bound in this life get a second chance or even an eternity of chances posthumously to believe in Jesus and enjoy heaven. The eternity of chances version basically says “who could resist God’s love for eternity?” and states that such eventual reconciliation brings God glory whereas mass eternal suffering does not. Some big wigs in early church history, whom we probably do not want to call heretics, held views along this line (though he does also list one who was eventually declared a heretic).

In analyzing this diversity in Christian historical thought Bell makes two important arguments. 1) You can be a Christian and not believe option “a” so you should not force potential converts to adopt option “a” if it is the only thing standing between them and Jesus. 2) Option “a” is a much less compelling and aesthetically powerful story than option “c.”

my thought: I think Bell makes a good point regarding the Christian-ness of those who hold to the various ways to answer the question. If I can restate part of his point, it is the person of Jesus that saves, not a principle regarding hell (those who have ears, hear the echo of Bonhoeffer).

On his point that option “c” is a better story: okay, but I say that begrudgingly and with a lot of discomfort. I don’t like (I really really don’t like) the precedent it sets for intentionally taking the palate of the surrounding culture as the test for good theology. To those who speak seminary-talk: all theology is contextual but it seems to be something qualitatively different from contextualized theology when encultured taste is deployed as the primary theological measuring stick. That is probably a whole separate post (or book) though.

The surrounding culture’s sense of beauty and narrative appeal can get extremely twisted and evil, so we need to be really cautious in making the move Bell is making here. With that said, I don’t think option “c” is  appealing to any evils in our surrounding culture and since I am an evangelical I like it when people sing the Christian story in a way that has precedent in historical Christianity and encourages others to follow Christ (see Philippians 1:15-18 for an even more radical view).

The Picture in Revelation

The picture at the end of Revelation is of God making something new so we need to leave open room for new possibilities of which we cannot conceive or predict because of our limited minds and perspectives.

my thought: sure, why not?

Changing the Question

In light of the inability to conclusively answer how God is going to get what God wants, at the end of the chapter Bell changes the question from “Does God get what God wants?” to “Do we get want we want?” His answer to that is an unequivocal “yes.” “If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own God, God graciously grants us that option…. If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, and peace… we are given a life free from any of those realities. If, however, we crave light, we’re drawn to truth, we’re desperate for grace, we’ve come to the end of our plots and schemes and we want someone else’s path, God gives us what we want ” (61).

my thought: I should have put money on this following C. S. Lewis (The Great Divorce)! I think this is a fine way to think of hell, though it does not have a strong appeal to me on a couple of accounts. First, I just don’t see it in the New Testament. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, I just don’t think it is stated clearly in these terms in Scripture (but neither is the trinity…). Second, where is Jesus in this? I’ve peeked ahead and I think I saw a little more Jesus in the next chapter so maybe it will come. At this point though I don’t see a central role for Jesus in  Bell’s account of what determines who has a hellish next life and who has a heavenly one.

A related thought I have (on which I would love feedback)  is that it seems to put a lot more weight on my wisdom (the wisdom of a sinful and stupid person) to want the good than it does on Jesus’ ability to save me from my sinful wants. In this way it does not seem to successfully bypass the theological challenge which, if I am reading Bell correctly, is a significant part of his concern, that is, the reliance of traditional evangelical views on the individual’s ability to see the value of Jesus and follow him in order for them to experience salvation.

Summary

Bell argues that there is a huge diversity in the ways Christians have thought about the potential eternal suffering of many people in the face of a powerful God who wants everyone to be saved. He rightly points out that this means we need to accept a wide variety of views as legitimate positions for Christians to hold. He does not offer a conclusive solution to the theological dilemma himself, but instead switches the discussion to God’s allowance for our freedom. God gives us the space to desire the things of a hellish experience in the next life or the things of a heavenly experience. This is not heresy, but I don’t think, given the argument in the book so far, it is a terribly strong position either. He still has time to convince me though…

N. T. Wright on bin Laden and American Cowboyism

Check out Michael Gorman’s blog where he re-posted an interesting article by the british scholar, N. T. Wright, on the United States’ operation which killed Osama bin Laden. For those unfamiliar with N. T. Wright, he is a prominent figure in the New Testament studies world and, more importantly, is currently professor at the same university at which Prince William and Princess Kate met.

H-E-Double Hockey Sticks (Chp 3 of Love Wins)

Here we are for Chapter Three of Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, the “Hell” chapter. Check out my review of Chapters 1 and 2 to get the scoop on my reaction to the start of the book (for which I know the whole world has been clamoring).

Bell makes four moves in his discussion on Hell. I will shape my review around those four moves, interjecting my commentary at each turn. Skip down to the final paragraph if you are looking for a brief summary. As a note, my thoughts follow “my thoughts:.” Don’t confuse my summary with my commentary!

Bell’s First Move: The words directly translated to “hell” in English are not directly equivalent to “hell.”

The Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) talk of sheol which is “a dark, mysterious, murky place people go when they die,” but this is not a place of eternal punishment or suffering. The Hebrew Scriptures are more concerned about our way or mode of living than about what happens after we die. Jesus talks about Gehenna, but that directly refers to the garbage dump outside Jerusalem. The New Testament also talks about the Greek place of the dead, Hades, but that is more like sheol than hell.

my thoughts: Fair enough. It is important for his argument though to dive more into how Jesus (and other Jews from his time period) talked about Gehenna to see if it had become an image for what people expected death to hold for the unrighteous. If anyone reading this has done such a study I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Bell’s Second Move: There are all different kinds of hells in that there are all different kinds of ways there  to “resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next ” (42).

The story of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke 16 is used as a central piece in this discussion as a way to talk about human sin and suffering  (individual and systemic) in a way that connects life (and hell) now and the life (and hell) to come.

my thoughts: Without studying it more, I actually thinks he gives an interesting and plausible reading of the story of Lazarus and the rich man. If he wants to use “hell” in a general way to talk about suffering which results from sin, I am okay with that. However, I am going to keep an eye on that rhetorical move.

Bell’s Third Move: Hell is not used for conversion of “outsiders” but in ethical instruction to “insiders.”

When Jesus talks about “hell” he is not talking about belief, but ethics. Jesus did not talk about “hell” to convert pagans to believe in God in order to avoid burning when they die. Rather, he talked about “hell” to the religious people of God who considered themselves “in” in order “to warn them about straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love” (44).

my thoughts: Interesting. This would seem to challenge modern methods of evangelism which use hell as an essential component in communicating the gospel.

Bell’s Fourth Move: Judgment and punishment are corrective.

There is a “movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to life ” (46). He points to God’s promise to restore the fortunes of Sodom and Gomorrah in Ezekial 16 and the theme of restoration which pervades the Hebrew Scriptures.  He also points to corrective nature of punishment (i.e. Jeremiah 5, 1 Corinthians 5 and 1 Timothy 1:20) and the way in which “handing them over to Satan” is a way to say ‘let them exhaust the sinfulness of this path and experience the full consequences to learn a lesson.’ He also points to the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 where he translates kolasin aion (the destination of the goats who did not care for people in need) as “age of pruning” rather than “eternal punishment” which most translations have.

my thoughts: I was tracking up until Matthew 25. Aion can mean an “age” or “era,” but it can also mean “eternity” (Greek geeks can check BAGD, the standard scholarly dictionary for Greek). To make his case strong Bell has to argue why “age” makes better sense in this context. There might be a possible argument, but he needs to make it. If you look at 2 Thessalonians 1:9 we have an aion of destruction or death (oletheros). Whether that is an age of destruction or an eternal death (or any of the other combinations), it sounds to me more like a permanent situation rather than a corrective action. Bell is going to need to address passages like this if his overall argument is to eliminate an eternal suffering (maybe he will later or maybe the creators of the youtube video just wanted me to think that was his argument so that I would pay $10.99 to download the book).

Summary

All in all, Bell has changed the meaning of “hell” to refer to “the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life God has for us” (49). He has allowed for this hell to be present in the next life but seems more concerned with the hells we experience now. He has really only broadened the concept of hell at this point and as far as I can tell has not eliminated eternal suffering in the next life. I suspect this is going in the direction of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

Let’s see what happens next…

Women, Teaching, Head Coverings and Consistent Interpretation

Check out this post at Earliest Christianity. Some good food for thought for questions on gender, Scripture, and the church today.

What on Earth is Heaven? (Chp 1-2 of Love Wins)

I could not make it a full day after my last course at Duke without theological stimulation. Yesterday I downloaded Love Wins by Rob Bell. I am through chapter two and so far so good.

In Chapter One Bell raises a lot of questions that at some point or another have lurked around in every Christian’s head regarding the exclusivity of salvation. They are good questions about which we should talk and with which we should wrestle. So thanks to Rob Bell for raising them for us.

Chapter Two focuses on heaven. I thought this chapter was great. I have a couple minor squabbles with how he polemically targeted certain metaphors that we often use in talking about heaven, but he is trying to push for a change in our imaginations so I am not going to get hung-up on it. What I think Bell does really well in this chapter is get us to reclaim two important components of the gospel and the Christian tradition. First, his vision of heaven reclaims bodily resurrection and the kingdom of God coming to earth at the end of this age (eschatology). This is not only true to the  Jewish origins of Christianity, but is also true to the hope of the New Testament (check out 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21). Second, this allows ethics (how we behave) to be shaped by eschatology (expectations for the final age). When we envision a material kingdom of God on earth as the trajectory of God’s redemptive work we can understand better what it means to be a Christian in this age.

What Bell is not saying, which it sounds like some have accused him of, is that we can make heaven on earth now. He rightfully leaves that up to God. I think what he does say is that we can live heavenly shaped (or experience heaven) now, which is very different. As Christians we are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20); our true state of citizenship is the kingdom of God which is decidedly not the kingdom of man in which we presently find ourselves. We are like emissaries, aliens of another land, who need to live according to the ways of our homeland to be true to our identities in Christ and to bear witness to the world around us of the good kingdom which is coming.

Some of Bell’s comments did seem to suggest that current ethics were more important than eschatological hope for Christianity (pp.33-34). Here I think he is reacting against flows in Evangelicalism that have downplayed current social ethics out of eschatological hope. Bell’s reaction weakens him on this point. Our hope in God’s kingdom coming to earth is central to who the church is and what the church does in the present; that hope should not be eclipsed by the ethics of the present which stem from it.

It is too bad Bell and his publisher went for the “hey, I might be a heretic!” marketing approach. I expect that will turn a lot of people off to this re-imaging of heaven which  is much needed in today’s Christianity. Next chapter up is about hell. We’ll see if I feel the same after that.